Triathlon’s Biggest Conference Needs a Makeover

TBI has made shockingly little progress toward showcasing the diverse, inclusive triathlon it professes to champion.

Photo: Competitive Image

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Triathlon Business International’s mission statement is to grow and promote the sport. But the conference has made shockingly little progress toward showcasing the diverse, inclusive triathlon it professes to champion. Luckily, the fix isn’t hard.

2017 was not a showcase year for Triathlon Business International. The only annual conference in the U.S. dedicated solely to triathlon touted disgraced cyclist and former triathlete Lance Armstrong as one of its prize speakers, while former USA Triathlon CEO Rob Urbach made a speech about getting more women into the sport—through promoting wine and cheese parties where perhaps a spontaneous triathlon would break out.

It appeared as if none of the male pundits overseeing the conference had spoken to a woman before, nor considered how the platform they created can be used to reflect more positively on the sport—though “fostering a positive image of the sport” is part of the organization’s mission statement.

This year, the conference’s eighth iteration, was an opportunity for TBI and its board of directors to right the wrongs of the year before. To show the world that they are truly leaders in the sport who maintain that title by keeping closely attuned to triathlon’s pulse, and by championing important, emerging voices. Instead, it was a rehash of years before that left members of the Triathlete staff who attended as well as several attendees we spoke to, disappointed knowing what could’ve been—but hopeful that a smart makeover can turn it into the showcase for the sport it could be.

Let’s start with a simple fact: Much like Triathlete magazine, TBI is a manufactured affair. As such, it has the power to create an environment reflective of how the sport would look in an ideal world—a little tri utopia, if you will—that is inclusive and diverse racially, economically, and in gender. We know it’s not easy to nail that mix—we often fall short ourselves. But it’s something we think about every day, in particular giving equal voice within our pages to men and women.

In mid-January, TBI sent out a press release touting diversity, inclusiveness, and collaboration as the mantra of this year’s conference. Yet by our count only seven of the 47 listed speakers and moderators at the event were women (15 percent) and one out of those 47 was non-white (2 percent). In its most recently posted membership report, USAT stated that as of the end of 2015, 37 percent of its members were women, while in a 2009 report—the most recent posted with ethnicity statistics—about 12 percent identified as non-white. The mix at TBI was not even reflective of the sport’s reality.

Many of TBI’s speakers have presented year after year, with the overall effect being one of an echo chamber rather than the flurry of fresh ideas that comes only from including diverse perspectives.

Fortunately, there’s an easy fix. TBI has 100 percent control over who speaks—of whose ideas are elevated on its stage. With a year to identify new voices, there is no excuse not to see the diversity we crave in the sport reflected at TBI come 2019. Especially when one of the concerns so often expressed at the conference is about low female participation numbers.

A noted high point of this year’s event was Arizona Congresswoman and Ironman Kyrsten Sinema’s speech about public land conservation, a talk she gave after what was perhaps the weekend’s lowest point: The previous presenter wondered aloud on stage if women were meant to do triathlon because perhaps they couldn’t get as comfortable as men on TT bikes.

Another fix that will help ensure TBI showcases more quality ideas like Sinema’s and fewer distressing gaffes: Make the board better reflect the change it wants to see in the sport. It is now composed predominantly of older white men.

TBI has a lot of potential if its leaders can show the ability to truly lead—to set aside ego and the penchant for using TBI to tout their own expertise and rather use their prominent voices to inspire others to use theirs. To realize it’s not about them, but those they serve.

TBI seeks to serve the entire triathlon community by leveraging “the knowledge, talent, and resources of industry leaders in triathlon to the benefit of the sport.” It takes a high-level of self-awareness to realize those leaders may not be part of TBI’s inner circle. It will take humility to reach out to new leaders, then step aside and give them their spotlight.

For us at Triathlete, examining the disappointments our attending staff and other attendees expressed about TBI’s overall lack of diversity made us take a tough look at ourselves and realize we could do more to promote the diversity we wish to see within our own pages. We pledge to seek more new voices and imagery reflective of the beautiful spectrum of athletes who compete in the sport.

TBI’s platform has a lot of promise, and its managers have the opportunity, as they had coming into 2018, to create something the entire industry can be proud of. We’re hopeful 2019 will be the year TBI gets a makeover.

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